Portuguese General and “Duke of Goa” Alfonso de Albuquerque could not have foreseen the annual madness that would seize a nation of starved farmers and nescient tourists, only to become a global rage, when his stray military set about cultivating a fleshy yellow fruit in the once-unpeopled coasts of Western India. Today, India produces 2 out of every 5 mangoes consumed the world over, experiments with and exports premium hybrids, and owns intellectual property rights to several of it’s subspecies. No country on Earth can lay claim to this exotic fruit as does India.
Mangifera Indica and it’s hundreds of cultivars – most famously the Alphonso variety – return every summer to satisfy the boundless cravings of a country universally besotted by this tropical marvel. Mango season begins as early as April, and reaches a feverish pitch by the month of May before fading briskly into the monsoon, having found a spot inside every stomach on the subcontinent. But this seasonal sensation, inseparably intertwined with the Indian ethos, has a veiled, vibrant history, and profound impact on India’s international visage and trade policies.
The Diplomat Alphonso
India is the world’s largest producer of mangoes by far and, naturally, also the largest exporter, last year dispatching a total 46,000 tonnes to countries on every continent. India’s closest rival, China, manages less than a third of the production value, and not even a fraction of the export value. In fact, China received it’s first-ever half-tonne batch of Alphonso mangoes imported from India this year, and another five tonnes were shipped to Australia in an unprecedented trade agreement. Alphonsoes in Australia and the United States retail at anywhere from $5 to $9 a piece depending on the variety, which is a high price tag even in America. The mango, then, is a high-value export, and the Alphonso chief amongst the tribe. So much so that the national fruit is now an international bargaining chip.
“Mr. Prime Minister, The United States is looking forward to eating Indian mangoes,”
– US President George W. Bush
In 2006, the Alphonso mango became a most unusual diplomat when trade Ministers from the US and India concluded an absurd agreement: mangoes for Harley-Davidsons. India would relax it’s emission norms and import duties to allow Harley-Davidson to sell their iconic motorcycles, in exchange for the US easing up on phytosanitary regulations for the import of Alphonso mangoes, reinstating them on supermarket shelves two decades after they were banned for “insufficient treatment standards of weevils and fruit flies”. This quid-pro-quo of sorts is one of the most successful trade pacts in recent history, now infamous as “Mango Diplomacy”.
The Blood Mango
Trading mangoes, however, is not a recent phenomenon, and not exclusive to these two countries. In the 1980s, Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq began a tradition of exchanging mangoes with the then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that survives to this day. Politicians and office-holders on both sides of the border send mangoes once a year to their counterparts in a gesture of goodwill. This exchange is performed even during times of dispute between the two siblings perennially at war. And the tradition comes sometimes at great cost, as Pakistani conspiracy theorists enthusiastically insist.
Zia ul-Haq, the same President who initiated the exchange, later became a victim of his own act, in an ironic theory concocted and propagated by conspiracists. While returning to Islamabad from Punjab, the plane carrying 34 people, including Zia ul-Haq and several other high-ranking Pakistani military officials, crashed almost immediately after take-off, killing everyone on-board in a catastrophic explosion, without any may-day or distress signal. Also on the flight was US ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel.
India, Pakistan and the US all instated independent inquiries into the crash, and all three investigating agencies came to remarkably different conclusions. The United States maintains that a technical malfunction in the tail of the plane caused pilots to lose control and plummet out of the sky, a common problem in the C-130 Hercules model aircraft reported by pilots across the world. The wife of the US ambassador Raphel also upheld this investigation, along with the successor to her husband, Ambassador Robert Oakley.
Pakistani investigators, though, claimed that the reason cited by the United States was not sufficient to cause total loss of control. The full Pakistani report was never made public, but a few leaked pages have become breeding grounds for theory-mongers. The report claims that a crate of mangoes placed in the cargo-hold moments before takeoff was laced with a poisonous gas that knocked out the pilots, clearly indicating sabotage. No allegations were made as to the saboteur, but conspiracists believe it was India, Russia, Israel, US, Pakistani revolutionaries, or any combination of these. Journalist and writer Mohd. Hanif later detailed a fictitious account of the entire episode in his award-winning book, “A Case of Exploding Mangoes”. No black-box was recovered, and that appears to be fuel for conspiracy fires.
Considering the significance of mangoes in the Indian culture and economy, it is no surprise that farmers and agriculturists should seek to secure their interests in this extraordinary fruit. To protect plantation owners and consumers alike, the Union Ministry of Commerce has recognised the uniqueness of mango cultivars by awarding them a GI tag, or “Geographical Indication” tag. Specifically, varieties of Alphonso grown in Ratnagiri and Devgad, and the Benganapalle mango from Andhra Pradesh.
The GI tag is a hallmark of authenticity, designated only to those products that satisfy grade requirements and originate from particular geographical locations (a district, a city, or a country). The Ministry maintains a list of authorised growers and vendors, limiting the use of “Ratnagiri Alphonso” and “Devgad Alphonso” trade-names to only certified farmers. Darjeeling Tea was the first Indian product to receive a GI tag back in 2004, and today almost 300 products carry this indication.
Tequila and Parmesan cheese are two famous GI tag holders, and Alphonso is now squarely in the same class. It is but a matter of time before the world stage acknowledges this defiant king of fruits.